Craigslist’s shadier online cousin, Backpage.com, was seized today as part of an enforcement action by the FBI. Visitors to the website are now met with an official seal — one we’ve seen previously in other websites taken over by US authorities.
The second largest online marketplace in the United States, Backpage.com has faced criticism in recent years over its “Adult” section, which is a thinly-veiled attempt at hiding seedy listings from sex workers including escorts, strippers, and phone sex operators. If it had stopped there — transactional sex between consenting adults — it’s unlikely Backpage.com would have been shut down. But as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation tells it:
A classified advertising website known as “the hub” for prostitution advertising, Backpage.com serves as a virtual auction block where sex buyers can shop for human beings for sex from the privacy of their home, office, hotel room, or cell phone. Many of those bought and sold via the website are sexually trafficked women and children.
Reports show that Backpage facilitates this activity by editing ads to conceal the illegality of underlying criminal activity.
Craigslist was once met with similar ire from advocacy groups. The group took issue, specifically, with its “Adult Services” — formerly “Erotic Services” — section, a place once used to facilitate encounters with sex workers — many of which were sex trafficking victims, or minors. A 2014 study revealed some 70 percent of child sex trafficking survivors were sold online at some point.
Craigslist has since removed the section. Shortly after the shutdown in 2010, most of the activity just shifted to another of its sections, “Casual Encounters.” There, men and women could facilitate transactional hookups, or find willing participants in everything from streaming sex work to full-blown orgies.
Casual Encounters was also removed. But hold the applause. The shutdown wasn’t so much a conscionable decision to do what’s right, as forced action by Congress due to the newly passed HR 1865, aka FOSTA — the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.
The bill allows lawmakers to seize websites like Backpage.com and subject the owners to criminal and civil liability for their contents. Before FOSTA, websites were protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Passed in 1996, the bill protects websites like Craigslist and Facebook from being held accountable for user-posted content. That is to say, Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t be personally held responsible for a child exploitation group hosted on Facebook — unless he were unwilling to take it down after being made aware.
Once Craigslist — the largest online marketplace in the US — removed its “Casual Encounters” section, all attention then turned to Backpage.com, which was arguably the more egregious offender.